Defense officials say unusual delays in conducting an Air Force intercontinental ballistic missile test may have more to do with politics than technical problems.
The Air Force Global Strike Command, based at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., planned to conduct a Minuteman III flight test earlier this year but has scrapped the launch three times.
One missile was fired in April, but a second test is now delayeduntil after the presidential election.
Defense officials disputed the official explanation for the delays: that components used in the missile’s self-destruct mechanism malfunctioned and needed to be replaced.
That claim was challenged by a missile specialist who said it was an excuse. The official said such glitches are normally remedied with redundant systems, or a relatively quick parts replacement that should not take nine months.
Further suspicions of a political decision behind the testing delay were fueled when the Strike Command recently announced the test now will take place Nov. 14 - after the presidential election - when it may well be put off again.
“The launch for GT 206 is scheduled for Nov. 14,” said Strike Command spokeswoman Michele Tasista, referring to the number designator. “This is the only test window remaining for us in 2012. We expect four test launch opportunities in 2013.”
According to Obama administration arms control officials, concern about Chinese or Russian reaction to the routine and necessary test-firing likely intervened to put off the test so as to avoid upsetting the Russians.
“These things can’t just be fired off because [Air Force Strike Command] decides to,” said one official. “They are carefully planned and controlled by treaties.”
The political misgivings are the result of senior U.S. officials fearing a nuclear-armed adversary might mistake the test launch for a pre-emptive nuclear attack.
By contrast, Russia’s military apparently has no similar concerns. Moscow test-fired a new ballistic missile in May that Russian officials said has new capabilities to penetrate U.S. missile defenses, a major Russian concern.
Officials at the Air Force Strike Command, which is in charge of the test, disputed the assertion of political interference but declined to answer questions about the testing delays beyond a brief statement.
“The only policy issue we are aware of pertains to range safety, and that is why we are replacing a test-unique instrumentation component on the missile,” Ms. Tasista said.
The three ICBM launch postponements, first set for March 1, then April 10 and most recently May 16, were due to the same problem related to the missile’s self-destruct capability, according to the command.
The missile was to be fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., home of the U.S. long-range missile defense interceptors that are part of the system that has upset Russia and China because of their capabilities to shoot down high-speed long-range missiles.
Air Force Lt. Col. Ron Watrous told Inside the Ring that the delays are the result of the technical problems with the missile destruct mechanism that were found after the successful flight test of a Minuteman III in April and led to the delays in the next test. That flight test was the only one so far this year and, unless the November test occurs, could be the last.
Asked if arms control concerns were behind the delays, Col. Watrous said: “There has been no discussion of any of that. It is simply a range safety issue.”
The Strike Command statement said the “test-unique instrumentation component on the missile” being replaced is solely for test launches for safety and tracking and “does not have any role or impact on the operational reliability or effectiveness of the ICBM itself.”
“The test-unique component, which is being replaced, is part of a larger flight termination system, which provides Airmen the ability to monitor and safely terminate the missile in flight,” the statement said.
The tests program is designed to “to validate and verify the effectiveness, readiness and accuracy of the weapon system,” the statement said, noting that “we have several other tests by which we obtain the data necessary to confirm the operational readiness of the ICBM fleet.”
MISSILE DEFENSE SUCCESS
The Pentagon announced Wednesday the successful intercept flight test of an advanced version of the ship-based Aegis Ballistic Missile system - the heart of the Obama administration’s European-based missile defense plan.
A Missile Defense Agency statement concluded after a preliminary review test data that the exercise was “a very accurate intercept.”
The statement describing the test said the missile defense ship USS Lake Erie fired the Navy’s newest Standard Missile-3 Block 1B interceptor that slammed into a separating ballistic missile target in space over the Pacific Ocean.
A target missile launched from Kauai, Hawaii, at 11:15 p.m. local time and was detected and tracked by the ship’s AN/SPY-1 radar on the ship.
The Standard Missile-3 was launched and “maneuvered to a point in space, as designated by the fire control solution, and released its kinetic warhead,” the statement said.
“The kinetic warhead acquired the target, diverted into its path, and, using only the force of a direct impact, engaged and destroyed the threat in a hit-to-kill intercept,” it stated.
It was the second consecutive intercept for the new missile.
The Block 1B is more advanced than the earlier and less-capable Block 1A missile. The new missile has a longer range, improved capability for identifying true targets from decoys, and more power to kill sophisticated ballistic missiles. The Block 1B missile is being used with the upgraded system BMD 4.0.1.
The SM-3 Block 1B is slated for deployment in ground silos in Romania in 2015, plans that have upset Moscow and prompted a Russian general to threaten pre-emptive attacks on U.S. missile defenses in Europe.
Currently, there are 25 Aegis missile defense ships.
Turkey’s NATO-member government said recently that the nation does not plan to go to war with Syria over the recent shooting down of a Turkish military jet by Syrian air defenses.
U.S. intelligence agencies monitoring the region, however, have detected a Turkish troop buildup along the Syrian border that is raising concerns of a regional conflict.
Large numbers of Turkish troops and military vehicles, including tanks and artillery, were spotted moving toward the border in recent days. Another sign of increased tension is the Ankara government’s declaration that 13 zones near the towns of Diyarbakir, Sirnak and Hakkari are now temporary military security zones where live-fire drills are planned from July 6 to Oct. 6.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials said Saudi Arabia recently took action to try to limit support from the kingdom to Syrian rebels, fearing the aid could be used to bolster al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorists operating with rebels in Syria.
Riyadh has called for military support for the Syrian rebels and advocates armed intervention against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Several Saudi hard-line clerics launched fundraising campaigns for Syria following a May 25 massacre in the country. In response, Saudi Grand Mufti Shaykh Abd-al-Aziz Al al Shaykh issued a fatwa, or religious edict, banning unofficial fundraising for Syrian rebels and decreed that all fundraising must be approved by the Saudi government. It also banned jihad, or holy war, in Syria.